Continuing his efforts to advance the Middle East peace process, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has secured long-promised financial help for the Palestinian Authority from the Persian Gulf states.
Christopher’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday followed a series of meetings last week with Israeli and Palestinian leaders aimed at advancing their long- stalled negotiations.
The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, had pledged more than $100 million in financial assistance for the Palestinians last year.
But they reportedly had not officially turned over the money until Christopher’s visit during the weekend with leaders of six Gulf states.
At his meeting the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah, Christopher also reportedly pressed the Gulf nations to end Arab boycott of Israel. At a news conference after the meeting, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Mohammed al-Khalifa, said all the Gulf states had implemented legislation to terminate sanctions against countries trading with Israel.
Christopher told the news conference that he thought that the entire Arab League would lift the boycott against Israel itself “someday.”
His wording was less optimistic than last November, when he predicted the move would take place soon.
Christopher’s visit to the Middle East — his first effort at shuttle diplomacy in the region this year — began with a visit to Egypt on March 7.
He arrived in Israel two days later to the news that Israel and the Palestinians had earlier in the day agreed to set a new target date of July 1 for completing talks on an Israeli redeployment in the West Bank.
The agreement, which came at a meeting between Israeli Foreign minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization, was described by Peres as a breakthrough.
Peres told Israel Television last Friday that secret talks with the Palestinians had broken the deadlock in their negotiations.
Both sides had agreed to a gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops in the West Bank and a transfer of responsibilities to the Palestinians, Peres said.
But Saturday, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders denied that there had been any breakthrough with Israel, saying that fundamental differences remained.
Arafat met with Christopher last Friday to discuss the ongoing negotiations with Israel, which have been stalled in the wake of repeated terror attacks against Israelis by Islamic fundamentalist groups opposed to the peace process.
After his talks with Arafat, Christopher said he had received assurances that the Palestinian Authority would take new measures to “pre-empt terror.”
“Gaza cannot be a safe haven” for terrorists, Christopher said. “There are important steps that can be taken.”
Arafat maintained that his forces prevented 10 terrorist attacks and that the suspects are in jail.
The PLO leader pledged cooperation in the battle against terror, but cautioned that he had no “magic stick” to prevent further attacks.
During their meeting, Christopher outlined new American aid for the Palestinian Authority. He said the aid would include 200 surplus trucks and the dispatch of teams from the Defense and Agriculture departments for advice on medical, humanitarian and agricultural needs.
In addition to his meetings last week with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, Christopher met with President Ezer Weizman and Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meanwhile hours before the Christopher-Arafat meeting last Friday, Israel lifted its monthlong blockade of Lebanese ports.
The blockade had been imposed since Feb. 8. Israel had said the blockade was in retaliation for the Lebanese government’s harassment of residents living in the southern security zone who supported Israeli efforts to drive the Iranian- backed Hezbollah movement from the area.
According to Army Radio, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin lifted the blockade as a gesture to Christopher’s ongoing peace efforts.
Christopher left Saudi Arabia on Sunday to fly to Damascus, where he was scheduled to meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad about the long-stalled negotiations with Israel.
He was expected to return to Israel on Monday to brief Israeli officials on his talks with the Syrian leader.
According to local news reports, Israeli officials expected that Syria would agree to resume the ambassadorial and high-level military talks in Washington that were suspended by Assad in December.
But the Syrian media indicated that Christopher should not expect Assad to make any concessions to Israel.
The Syrian daily A-Thawra condemned what it called the United States’ “absolute support of Israel” and said the Americans had yet to prove that they are fair and impartial mediators.
Rabin said after his meeting last week with Christopher that Israel is committed to and capable of peace with Damascus.
At the same time, a political source quoted by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz said Rabin does not feel a “sense of urgency” about negotiations with Damascus.
However, Peres called for an intensive effort to reach a political solution with Syria before the 1996 elections.
In a television interview, Peres said, “We have 20 months until the elections. The feeling that time is running out, and that perhaps there is a risk of losing peace, obligates us to concentrate our efforts to advance the peace.”
Peres said Israel had analyzed the Syrian position and had concluded that “alongside the Syrian stubbornness, there is an inclination to make progress.”